Making Collaboration Work, Part 1:Women’s Memoir Duo Kendra Bonnett & Matilda Butler

Collaboration. Some folks are suited for it, and some aren’t. When it does work, worlds of resources combine, expand, and intersect toward common goals as shares ideas, knowledge, and learning through building consensus.

How do we do that to make our work better, further-reaching, and…more fun? I invited Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler of Women’s Memoirs to tell us the story of how they met and what makes their sizzling and productive collaboration work.

This two-part interview with Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler kicks off our Riehlife Blog-of-the-Month series. It’s a linked interview with Creative Catalyst, the column Stephanie Farrow and I write for Telling Her Stories. From February through April on Story Circle Network’s blog we’ll present three posts on collaboration.

I first met Kendra and Matilda through Story Circle Network. Together they write and manage an ambitious, productive, and helpful blog Women’s Memoirs. The entire range of their creative and entrepreneurial collaborations are beyond my ability to describe or even list. I’m constantly agape at the amount and quality of their work.

During last summer’s blog tour to launch my audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music,” Kendra and Matilda were generous collaborators. We blog for Story Circle Network’s “Telling Her Stories.” My column is Creative Catalyst. Kendra’s is “Getting Read,” and Matilda’s is “Opening Salvos.” At the February Story Circle Network Memoir Conference in Austin we’ll be there together presenting workshops, coaching, reading…and, generally having a good time.

Here’s Part 1 of Kendra and Matilda’s interview. Here they tell us how they met and began working together.

Women’s Memoir Duo on Collaboration

Riehlife: Kendra and Matilda, this year marks your 30th year of collaboration. That’s a long time! I’m glad you’re here to share with us what you’ve learned about working together as a team. First, tell us the story of how you started working together.

Kendra: I always feel this is my story. You see, Matilda was my first boss. Just out of graduate school at UC Santa Barbara I felt I needed to go to the city to get a good job. Even though I’m originally from the East Coast, I didn’t feel ready to tackle New York City. Instead, I choose a city where I felt very comfortable–San Francisco.
A friend helped me become a temp at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development. After a few months, I was getting a pretty good reputation for my editing and writing skills, and that’s when the editor position opened with the Women’s Educational Equity Communication Network. I interviewed with the associate director along with about 25 others (although I didn’t know that at the time).

Matilda: Kendra, let me jump in here. My associate director was Jean Marzone. After the interviews, she told me that Kendra was her first choice. I looked at her resume and hesitated to even include Kendra in the top three candidates I’d interview. I remember saying, “Jean, she doesn’t have the right experiences and hasn’t written about women’s issues.” But Jean insisted, and I agreed to the interview. Even after I talked with Kendra, I was somewhat hesitant.

Kendra: Matilda, I knew I was a quick study and obviously persuaded you to give me a try. Being editor turned into a great learning experience. I was responsible for dozens of publications each year. I remember the first time I was faced with a publication layout, I sneaked in on the weekend, and found the mechanicals for some previously published materials piled in the closet. I pulled them out and began taking one apart.

“Rubber cement!” I shouted to the empty office. You have to remember that this was 30 years ago. Our page layouts were still done with rubber cement and layout boards. Well, my mother was a commercial artist, and she’d taught me long ago the proper way to work with rubber cement. That was when I was certain I could do the job.

Matilda: That was the fall of 1979. We could never have imagined that 30 years later, we’d continue to be friends and now co-authors, colleagues and business partners.

Riehlife: How did your collaboration develop across time?

Kendra: Matilda left Far West Lab in 1982 to co-found her own company, Knowledge Access, a CD-ROM indexing and retrieval software company. We continued to stay in touch and became more friends than business colleagues. However, there were always shared professional interests in the air. For example, when I was editor in chief of IBM’s Profit Magazine, I had an opportunity to feature Matilda and her company on the cover of an issue we did about CD-ROM technology.

Somehow the years passed. I now lived on the East Coast and worked in marketing for several companies. If I was in California, I visited Matilda. When she found herself in NYC on business, she’d call me and I’d come into the city for a museum visit and a meal. Since we’re talking about collaboration, I’ll skip the things we individually did professionally in those years and bring us to 2004.

Matilda: Well, let me back up just a little. Once I sold my company, I was eager to return to research and writing. At my 40th high school reunion in 2000, I became intrigued by the changing expectations and experiences of women in the various graduating classes.

I was struck by the mismatch between the expectations and experiences of women in my class. Our main expectation was to become wives and mothers. In our actual experience we also became judges, lawyers, doctors, and business executives. I decided to research this topic and write a book. After interviewing more than 100 women born during World War II and writing a first draft of the book, I asked Kendra to read it during her 2004 visit. She was polite, even helped me get an agent. However, I knew Kendra well enough to know that the book wasn’t all that I wanted it to be.

Kendra: Gee, I thought I had hidden my initial concerns better than that. I remember the phone call in early 2005, Matilda, when you asked if I’d co-author the book with you. I don’t think I missed a beat and replied, “Of course. How do you want me to help?” The business-minded of you may notice that I agreed before I even knew what she wanted me to do or how we would share royalties. We’ll get back to this point about our collaboration in a minute.

The outcome of our co-authorship of what became the award-winning collective memoir Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story. This project re-focused our lives on memoir writing—especially women’s memoir. Research for Rosie’s Daughters showed us the power of helping women tell their stories. Initially, Matilda began teaching memoir writing workshops and I began coaching women on writing and publishing their memoirs. We started co-teaching online classes, and are now working on a book about writing.

Riehlife: This is an amazing story.

Read part 2 as Kendra and Matilda tell more about their working process and share five lessons they’ve learned about effective and fun collaboration.

Later in February Riehlife will run another two-part interview between my collaborator Stephanie Farrow and myself.

These four posts anchor the theme of collaboration for Riehlife’s Blog-of-the-Month. Please leave your ideas about collaboration and your collaboration stories in the comment section of these posts.

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